Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bearing Depression...Cheerfully

I know my title is hilarious.  In fact, the whole premise of this post is a little outlandish, so if you're not able to stomach it today, I totally respect that.  But this is something I've been thinking of a lot for the past few months, and I'm excited to explore it here with you.

Just about every time adversity comes up in the church, it comes with the exhortation to "bear it well" or to "endure cheerfully."  Our beloved President Hinckley used to tell us to "cultivate an attitude of happiness."  And strangely, if you suffer from clinical depression, these words of encouragement can sound like rebukes, and can even exacerbate classic symptoms, such as low self-worth, hopelessness, inadequacy, and guilt.

What is the meaning of bearing your trial cheerfully when the very definition of your trial is a clinical inability to feel cheer?  Does it mean pulling yourself up by your boostraps each day?  Because most of us have done plenty of that.  And to tell the truth, that's where this blog post was headed originally, because I consider myself pretty good at "bootstrapping."  After all, the dark thoughts and feelings I struggle with would alienate me from most people in the world if I shared them as constantly as I felt them.  This disease requires a good filter or it will spread. 

But there's a difference between putting on a happy face--which is actually an essential skill whether you suffer from mental illness or not--and showing true cheer.

First, let's look carefully at what cheer means in an LDS context, because when I think of cheer, I tend to think of skipping down the road singing "Zippidee Doo Dah."  (And to be clear, I think we could all use a lot more of that song in our lives.)

But does the Lord require skipping and singing on the toughest days of our lives, even figuratively? President Thomas S. Monson's 2009 talk, "Be of Good Cheer," provides a window to our answer.
How might we have joy in our lives, despite all we may face...'Wherefore, be of good cheer, and do not fear, for I the Lord am with you, and will stand by you.'  The history of the Church in this, the dispensation of the fullness of times, is replete with the experiences of those who have struggled and yet who have remained steadfast and of good cheer as they have made the gospel of Jesus Christ the center of their lives. This attitude is what will pull us through whatever comes our way.  It will not remove our troubles from us but rather will enable us to face our challenges, to meet them head on, and to emerge victorious.  Too numerous to mention are the examples of all the individuals who have faced difficult circumstances and yet who have prevailed because their faith in the gospel and in the Savior has given them the strength they have needed.  (Emphasis added.) 
President Monson goes on to describe the harrowing experience of a German mother who mourned the loss of her husband and her home, and who walked many miles in the freezing cold with her four small children, whom she lost to starvation and cold, one by one.  Her despair almost drove her to take her own life.

Does this sound like good cheer to you?  Then why on earth did our prophet and seer even bring it up?  Look again at the quote.  He defines cheer a little differently.  He defines cheer as an attitude of faith that allows us to face great challenges and emerge victorious.  And our German sister did exemplify this cheer, this faith, in just the way that we can, yes, even those of us whose minds aren't working quite right.  President Monson shares her conversation with God during that terrible time:
Dear Heavenly Father, I do not know how I can go on.  I have nothing left--except my faith in Thee.  I feel, Father, amidst the desolation of my soul, an overwhelming gratitude for the atoning sacrifice of Thy Son, Jesus Christ.  I cannot express adequately my love for Him.  I know that because He suffered and died, I shall live again with my family; that because He broke the chains of death, I shall see my children again and will have the joy of raising them.  Though I do not at this moment wish to live, I will do so, that we may be reunited as a family and return--together--to Thee.
Not too many days later, while still in the advanced stages of starvation, this amazing woman bore testimony that she was the happiest of the exiles because Christ gave her hope for a glorious reunion with her loved ones.

So cheer looks a little different in the toughest times: if it wore a grin, truth would revolt and the Spirit would flee.  When there is death and despair, or when mental illness makes you feel like there is, cheer will look more like sincere and honest prayer.  It will look like reaching, believing, hoping for better times, because Christ is still leading the way.

Let us cultivate faith and hope in Jesus Christ every day.  It might look like "bootstrapping" to people who don't understand, and that's okay.  Because when we let our faith move us out the door to help others in spite of our own pain; when we let hope put smiles on our faces even on tough days; when we keep our hearts open to the possibility of joy--then Christ can do miracles. 


MyDonkeySix said...

I love this. Well said. I have often thought about this as well and you have answered this question beautifully. Thank you!

The Bailey Family said...

Beautifully said. I love the part that says, "So cheer looks a little different in the toughest times: if it wore a grin, truth would revolt and the Spirit would flee." That's so true! Thank you for sharing your beautiful insights.